Feature adoption 101: What product managers need to know

Every product manager seeks to get adoption for their products. But, not every product manager understands the fundamental principles that drive feature adoption. 

I’ve shipped 10 multimillion dollar products and dozens of smaller features over the last 5 years, and I’ve learned from experience exactly how users actually adopt products.

In this article, I’ll establish the fundamentals of feature adoption, and more specifically:

Note: “techniques for feature adoption” and “feature adoption metrics” are out of scope for our discussion.

Let’s begin by defining what exactly feature adoption is.

What does it mean for users to adopt your features?

A common misconception that I hear in the industry is that “as long as users have used your feature, you’ve created value for them.”

Here’s why that’s not true.

Many times, users might try out new functionality, but they don’t wind up adopting it. They might use it once or twice because they’re curious (and novelty is always exciting), or they may give it a shot because your most recent release notes highlighted your new capabilities.

But, if your users don’t adopt your feature over the long run, then you haven’t created lasting value for them.

In other words, feature usage is not the same as feature adoption. A significant portion of feature usage comes from one-off trials that don’t convert into long-term advocates of your product.

So how exactly should we define feature adoption?

When a user truly adopts a feature, they fully embrace it and incorporate it into their lives. In other words, to drive feature adoption, we have to change human behavior

Feature adoption is the true benchmark for product value, not feature usage. After all, our users only get the full value of our products when they fully commit to switching over. 

To bring this point to life, imagine this hypothetical user: They manage their day-to-day tasks across multiple solutions: pen-and-paper, whiteboards, Trello, Google Calendar, Apple Mail, Asana, and Jira. Because their tasks are fragmented across all of these solutions, they don’t reap the full value of any of these solutions.

They won’t get automatic insight into how heavy their workload is, how much velocity they have, or where their upcoming bottlenecks might be, because there’s no central source of truth for “what are all of my tasks?”

So, just because we ship a feature and see people use it, it doesn’t mean that they’ve adopted it. If they’re still running a portion of their processes outside of your functionality, they haven’t adopted your product and they haven’t reaped the full value of your work.

As a reminder, it’s crucial for us to maximize value for our users because that encourages them to stay with us, rather than switching away to a competing solution.

After all, people have limited time and bandwidth, and it’s time-consuming to learn how to use a new solution. Once your users have standardized on your functionality, they’re significantly less likely to try other competitors.

So, now we have a definition for what feature adoption is. But why does feature adoption matter so much for software product businesses?

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Why is feature adoption important for businesses?

Your company cares deeply about feature adoption, because feature adoption drives key financial levers for its investors and shareholders.

1. Feature adoption increases retention and decreases churn

When users standardize on your functionality, they’re less likely to look for alternatives because the time cost to evaluate and re-standardize on an alternative is too high.

When we increase retention, we increase customer lifetime value. That means that we have more revenue and more profits to work with as a business.

2. Feature adoption helps upsell the customer on additional value-add capabilities

You’ve proven the value of your functionality to the customer, and that builds trust. They’re then much more receptive to your other offerings, because they know that you’ve delivered them unique, lasting value.

Doing so, improves your business’s ability to upsell additional value-add capabilities to your users.

3. Feature adoption drives better NPS and customer satisfaction

At the end of the day, when users fully adopt your functionality, they perceive more value from you, and it takes them less mental effort and energy to use your functionality. That is, your feature provides higher ROI (return on investment) to users who have fully adopted it, and it provides less ROI for users who have not fully adopted it.

Those users who perceive that your product is high ROI are more likely to recommend your product to others, and are also less likely to churn away.

When customers are giving you positive word-of-mouth, your cost of acquiring new customers decreases because your brand is perceived positively in the market. When your users are advocating for you, it takes fewer advertising dollars to get new prospects to commit to you.

Now we understand why feature adoption is critical to the continued success of any software business. Next, let’s take the time to understand how users actually adopt features.

How do users adopt features?

I’ve worked with users from all over the world from a variety of different backgrounds, and I’ve had my products adopted by both consumers and multinational corporations alike.

Across all of my experiences, I’ve found that users adopt features in a five-step process:

  1. Awareness – Learn that the feature exists
  2. Interest – Decide whether the feature could help them solve a problem they have
  3. Evaluation – Understand how the feature works, and whether that feature is better than what they were using before
  4. Trial – Try the feature for the first time, and determine whether to keep using it
  5. Process change – Commit to lasting changes in the way they work and live their lives, by building processes and habits around using your product

I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that “adoption” is just another word for “replacement.”

That is, for a user to truly adopt your feature, they have to fully replace what they were doing before. There’s always a competitor, even if the competitor was “manual processes outside of software.”

Here’s a personal example. I’ve currently adopted Google Sheets to keep track of all of the product management essays that I’ve published.

But, before I adopted Google Sheets, I used pen and paper to keep track of what I published, and I used magnets to stick my paper onto my refrigerator door.

Now that I’ve adopted Google Sheets, I don’t even think about using pen, paper, and magnets. It’s fully replaced my past processes.

Take the time to consider the adoption funnel for your own product:

  1. Awareness: How easy is it for people to know that your new functionality exists?
  2. Interest: How clear is the “promise” that you’re making to them?
  3. Evaluation: How much better is your functionality vs. their current alternative? Is your feature intuitive, delightful, and valuable to end users?
  4. Trial: How easy is it for someone to start using your product? Can they self-serve create a trial account, or do they need to talk to dedicated sales reps?
  5. Process change: What kinds of barriers might your users have with moving to your product (e.g. data migration, user training, etc.?) How can you solve those barriers?

You have various techniques available to you to reduce friction throughout the adoption funnel. 

As an example, say that you’ve implemented Smartlook to get heatmaps for how users navigate your product. You might notice that a particular cohort of users never click or mouse over a recent new feature that you shipped.

That indicates that your users likely aren’t aware of your new functionality. In that case, you might want to use emails or in-app messaging to let them know that a new feature has arrived.

You might notice a different cohort of users mouses over the functionality but never clicks into it. In that case, it’s likely that you’ve lost them at the “interest” stage of the funnel.

Take the time to refine your value proposition, and check to see that the value of your functionality is immediately obvious at first glance – even to new users who might not have used your product before.

You can also implement Smartlook to get session recording and determine how much of your product your users actually leverage.

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Perhaps you see a set of users try a particular functionality only once, and they never come back to it again.

That indicates that there’s likely a process change problem. There’s some barrier happening outside the product that prevents them from moving 100% of their work onto your product.

If that’s the case, you’ll want to partner with customer success or customer support to better understand what’s causing users to fail to repeatedly use your product. Listen to inbound feedback and ask customers to let you shadow their employees so that you can make improvements to the product, to the adoption process, or both.

At the end of the day, once you have a clear grasp of the feature adoption funnel, you can pair qualitative insight with quantitative data to drive action and melt away friction for your users!

Summary

Effective product managers don’t just ship product features. The truth is, they’re focused on driving adoption, because process change is what ultimately matters for customers and for your company.

Remember that users adopt features through a five-step process: awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and process change. Find ways to make each step easier for them, and identify friction and bottlenecks to that adoption.

As you work on driving feature adoption, experiment with different methods. Each one will yield positive results, but remember that time is limited! Focus on shipping the techniques that will help you move the needle the fastest.

Clement Kao
 
Clement Kao

Clement Kao is Founder of Product Teacher, an education company dedicated to teaching product management best practices. Product Teacher provides self-paced courses and career coaching for individuals, and also provides corporate workshops for product orgs of all sizes.

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